The detainees arriving at the security office in Syria were “welcomed” with an hour of whipping or beating, they told a German court.
They were held in packed, sweltering cells and fed potatoes that tasted like diesel. They drank from the toilet. One recalled passing dead bodies in a hallway. A woman said she received electric shocks on her hands, legs and chest during interrogation.
On Thursday, the former intelligence official in charge of that office was convicted by a German court of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison. The court found that the former officer, Anwar Raslan, 58, oversaw the torture of prisoners at the notorious Al Khatib unit in Damascus and the killing of at least 27 people there, in addition to the sexual abuse and rape of detainees.
Legal advocates and Syrian survivors hailed the verdict as a landmark in the international quest to hold accountable those who committed war crimes during nearly 11 years of war in Syria. The trial in Koblenz, Germany, was the first of a ranking Syrian official and, international experts said, the first to target a government that is still in power.
“This was a very important verdict,” said Stefanie Bock, the director of the International Research and Documentation Center for War Crimes Trials at the University of Marburg in Germany. “The signal is: There is no safe haven for war criminals. It’s a clear sign that the world will not stand by and do nothing.”
But the conviction also highlighted the stark limitations of international efforts to bring perpetrators of war crimes in countries like Syria to justice.
Mr. Raslan, who served as a colonel in a Syrian intelligence service, was ultimately a mere cog in the extensive machinery of repression in Syria.
He left Syria in 2012, in the war’s second year, and joined the political opposition. The war continued to rage for nearly another decade, with Syrian forces using poison gas, imposing starvation sieges on rebellious communities and reducing residential neighborhoods to rubble through extensive bombing campaigns.
Both the rebels who tried and ultimately failed to oust Syria’s autocratic president, Bashar al-Assad, and jihadists from Al Qaeda and the Islamic State who took advantage of the conflict’s chaos also committed war crimes.
But only a handful of perpetrators have been prosecuted.
One reason, experts say, is that unlike leading Nazis after World War II or officials from the former Yugoslavia who were convicted of war crimes, the Syrian government, whose military and security services are responsible for the bulk of the violence, remains in power, preventing the apprehension of its leaders, officers and allies.
Mr. al-Assad and his senior advisers and military commanders rarely travel abroad. When they do, they only go to countries they can count on not to arrest them, like Russia, a staunch supporter of the Syrian government.
Other potential avenues for justice have also been blocked. Syria is not party to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and Russia and China have used their vetoes on the United Nations Security Council to prevent Syria from being referred to the court.
Germany is among a few European countries that have sought to try former Syrian officials for war crimes based on universal jurisdiction, the principle of international law that says that some crimes are so grave that they can be prosecuted anywhere.
Mr. Raslan entered Germany on a visa in 2014, and was arrested there in 2019.